Sergei Rachmaninoff was well past the nervous breakdown that threatened to end his composing life when he finished his Symphony No. 2. However, this 1907 lush, lyrical, hour-long piece was restored to its monumentally neurotic status in guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda's Friday outing with the Philadelphia Orchestra - in an all-Rachmaninoff program also featuring the debut of pianist Denis Matsuev.
In the symphony, rhythms were nervous, almost terrifying. Orchestral choirs were constantly invading from the side door - dramatically poised against the backdrop of the composer's customary orchestral luster. This, my friends, was a thriller (to paraphrase Boris Karloff).
You knew the performance was breaking from the norm when the usual serpentine motif that begins the first movement was tastefully phrased in three sections, each with a separate message - better allowing the ear to recognize their reappearances, both background and foreground, in later movements. The other tipoff was when the basses, usually the solidly supporting foundation of any Rachmaninoff sonority, dug into their strings emphatically, creating a higher-definition sense of many moving parts interacting sometimes supportively, sometimes competitively.
Years ago, Hans Vonk went down this road with the Symphony No. 2 and the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. But Noseda went much further, with a demonically galloping tempo for the second movement, though applying the vintage Philadelphia Orchestra sound for the third movement's exquisite repose (with a great clarinet solo by Ricardo Morales).
Time and again, one was struck anew by Rachmaninoff's compositional savvy, how his seemingly spontaneous emotionalism was framed to maximum effect. Climaxes aren't hard to create, but in the final movement, Rachmaninoff built them over a series of subtly conflicting rhythms, raising the tension from the music's very core. On every level, this symphony has never seemed greater.
Pianist Matsuev was lucky to be heard first. Having been tentatively impressed with his recordings, I looked forward to a clearer artistic fix on him in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the summits of the piano literature. That didn't happen. Starting with a refreshingly brisk tempo, his playing had a Mozartean ease and fluidity. And you had to be grateful for the loudness of his first-movement cadenza and the perseverance of his concentration as he drowned out the odd rogue buzz of unknown origin.
His technique in this piece is equaled only by a dozen or so pianists on the planet. That quality alone ensured success in this masterfully written showcase, guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet (the case on Friday).
Yet aside from some of the tender passages of deep reflection in the first two movements, his playing was fairly impersonal. In subsequent visits, perhaps he'll relax enough to show us who he is.